Koji: Bring on the funk

What the funk is Koji?  Delicious, magical mold, according to Gastronomist Jeremy Umansky. It’s sure to be a buzz word in the food world in 2017, thanks to the fungi-obsessed forager.
He’s been a mad scientist this year experimenting, creating, curing and cooking with the fungus that’s been around for centuries.  But he’s doing things with it that have never been done before.  Upon extensively researching it, Umansky discovered that, historically, growing koji is a laborious process.  However he found methods to turn that traditional process on its head.
You have likely eaten koji before, but just didn’t know it.  It’s utilized in Chinese and other East Asian cuisines to ferment soybeans and make bean paste.  It’s the same fungus that is responsible for sake, soy sauce and miso.  And it goes through various life phases like other forms of fungi.
Umansky calls his universe “an ever-deepening gastronomic rabbit hole.” With that in mind, it’s no surprise why he thought he needed to try something unconventional.  After a glance around the walk-in at Trentina, Umansky decided to use scallops (something that is usually quick to spoil) as a limit test.  He dusted them with rice flour and grew koji in two days.  Pleased with its fragrant appealing scent, he cooked it up with foraged cherries and loved the outcome.
Umansky said the koji essentially cured to scallops, changing the taste and texture to almost chicken like.  But who was going to eat this experiment?
The culinary team at Trentina used themselves as guinea pigs.  And they liked what they were tasting.  Umansky then progressed to an eye of round in an attempt to cut down dry aged steak process from 30 days to 3.  In his Ted Talk on the subject, Umansky says it was so successful and succulent that they were immediately added it to Trentina’s famed tasting menu, Menu Bianco.
From there, Umansky says he went “Koji Krazy” trying to cut down on the 60 day process of bresaola. He got it down to 10 days.  He used koji to make a casing-less sausage.  And all you GF folks are gonna be pumped about this…he calls Koji fried chicken the most exciting development, replacing the buttermilk, flour, egg and breading process and just coating it in koji.  Mind.Blown.
With these ground breaking developments Umansky is hoping butchers will be able to rapidly age meats (and be able to charge less for it) provide an outlet for food desserts (using off-cuts of meat for charcuterie) to make for shelf stable, nutrient dense proteins for people in those areas.  He says he’d also love to see experimentation with Koji expanded into the farming, and medical industries.
Are you as curious as I am about this?  I have got to smell this, and taste this.  A more in depth look at the process is outlined in a recent article in Cook Science.  But you can hear and learn about it in person, in Umansky’s upcoming lecture series at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Monday, 26 December at 11am & 1:30pm -“An Introduction to Koji: Where It’s Been & Where It’s Going.”  This will cover the evolution of koji from a wild mold to an industrially cultivated organism. Umansky will talk about its gastronomic applications. Koji is a very complex gastronomic tool with many different expressions. He will outline how to grow koji and reference its other expressions. He’ll be giving attendees little packets of spores to take home if they wish to grow their own. 
Tuesday, 27 at 11am & 1:30pm -“Shio Koji: The Cosmic Cure & Amazing Amazake.” This lecture & demonstration will cover Shio koji (salted koji) and amazake (sweet rice koji). He’ll cover traditional uses,  how to make them, use it to cure meat and fish, use it as a seasoning, baking bread, making ice cream, protein incubation, and pickling. And he’ll be premiering samples of a new technique/food that we’re calling Smokeless Fish and the Larder amazake rye bread. 
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 at 11am and 4pm-“Koji Culturing: The New Frontier.” This lecture and demonstration will cover the new techniques he’s developed for using koji as a curing agent and aging accelerant for fresh cuts of meat and charcuterie.  Bonus: he will serve a koji aged pork tenderloin and koji cultured bresaola.
“The fun thing about this lecture, for me, is that I’ll get to serve people foods that have only been enjoyed by a few handfuls people. These are new and exciting foods.” -Jeremy Umansky.  
Note: the photos in this post come from Jeremy Umansky’s Instagram and Facebook accounts where he has been documenting and sharing his adventures in koji for nearly two years.